Lower Elwha elder Bea Charles, linguist and historian, dead at 89
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Laura Callender/Peninsula Woman
Adeline Smith, left, and Bea Charles, who died Monday, are pictured in this photo taken in 2005.

By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES -- Bea Charles, one of the last Lower Elwha elders fluent in the Klallam language, died in her sleep at home on the reservation west of Port Angeles on Monday morning.

She was 89.

The Lower Elwha Klallam elder known for her smile breathed life into the native language beginning in 1992, when she and three other elders began working with a linguist to record, transcribe and preserve the words of their people, which had been nearly forgotten.

Of those four, only her aunt, Adeline Smith, 91, remains.

"Losing Bea was a big loss for our tribe," said her great grandniece Wendy Sampson on Tuesday. "She had a lot of knowledge left to give, and she gave a lot through all her years."

Thanks to those four elders -- Mrs. Charles; Smith; Ed Sampson, Smith's older brother; and Tom Charles -- the words of their people live on through language programs provided by the tribe and Port Angeles High School that developed from hours of recordings archived by linguist Timothy Montler of the University of North Texas.

Ed Sampson and Tom Charles died in the 1990s. Another elder fluent in Klallam that Montler recorded in the 1970s, Richard Sampson, lives on Vancouver Island.

Wendy Sampson said all of the tribe's elders are vital to maintaining their culture, history and language.

'A vast treasure'

"And [Bea Charles] was really a big part of maintaining our history and culture," she said. "Losing her is losing a vast treasure."

Using his recordings, especially those from the 1990s, Montler has developed a Klallam alphabet based on the American Phonetic Alphabet and is nearing completion on the language's grammar structure and a dictionary with close to 10,000 entries.

It is that work to date, which Mrs. Charles was an integral part of, that led to the development of the language programs in 1998.

Mrs. Charles thrived on the work until her last day, Montler said.

"She was saying always, 'Can we work an extra hour tomorrow?'" he said after he saw her in February to work on the dictionary.

"Every day she wanted to do more and more.

"She was right to the end, dedicated and devoted to providing a future for the generations to come."

Smith said the dictionary will provide a tool for future generations to learn the Klallam language, but it won't substitute learning it from elders.

"It will never be perfect," she said.

Smith said that when she returned to the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation in the 1980s, it was Mrs. Charles that she had to speak Klallam with because few other tribal members knew the language.

Smith said there are about five or six other elders who can speak Klallam, but she is the last elder working with Montler to preserve the language.

"A lot of young people today don't even know what you are saying at all," Smith said. "So we are reviving it."

Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles estimated that more than 200 Lower Elwha Klallam children have been taught the Klallam language at the high school and the tribe's day care, head start and after-school programs in the last decade.

But Mrs. Charles was not only a linguist, said her daughter, Lorna Mike.

Health, treaty rights

She served on several organizations, including the national Indian Health Board, and championed domestic-violence awareness, Mike said.

It was her mother who encouraged Mike to become a nurse and later to serve on the same health board.

"She was an inspiration to me," she said.

Frances Charles said Bea Charles was also a promoter of treaty rights and was always encouraging the tribe's youth to "reach for the stars."

Mrs. Charles was also a source for learning about Klallam history and language for the Jamestown S'Klallam and Port Gamble S'Klallam tribes, Frances Charles said.

"We lost a lot of history," she said. "That's the sad thing. We lost a lot of history with her."

Sampson and Montler both said Mrs. Charles was part of the last generation of Klallam tribal members who learned their language at home.

Smith said as children they were discouraged at public schools from speaking Klallam.

"It was hard to remember sometimes," Mrs. Charles told the Peninsula Daily News in 2007, as she remembered conditions at a boarding school she was forced to attend in Chemawa, Ore., as a child.

"Especially when we were all together, we sometimes slipped back into speaking Klallam."

Sampson said the language wasn't passed on by her generation because they were punished for using it when they were away from their families.

"There were a lot of people that grew up speaking the language as their first language and never passed it on to their children. So there is a generation gap," she said.

Children learning

But because of elders like Mrs. Charles, the Klallam language is making a comeback through the language programs.

Children are now growing up learning to speak Klallam, which was not the case over 15 years ago.

Smith said she is hopeful that the Klallam language and culture will continue to be revitalized.

"All of the heritage that we were taught is bouncing back to this generation," she said.

"It will never be perfect. It is a lot better than it was."

Sampson -- who was taught the language by Mrs. Charles beginning in 1996 and now teaches it in the tribe's after-school program -- agrees that there is still work to be done.

"I think we are all still learning," she said.

"I don't believe anyone is fluent other than those first speakers. The elders."

Mrs. Charles was born May 14, 1919 in Pysht. She was preceded in death by her husband, Elmer Charles, a WW II veteran who served at the Battle of Bulge.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son, Chuck Williams, about 15 grandchildren, and many other relatives.

A memorial service will be held for Mrs. Charles at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center, 2538 Lower Elwha Road.

Frances Charles said flowers and other donations for the service are welcome, and can be sent to Drenna & Ford Funeral Home, 260 Monroe Road, Port Angeles.

"[Bea Charles] will be greatly missed," she said.

"A lot of people are already realizing that she is greatly missed, and she will always be thought of."


Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at tom.callis@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 21. 2009 11:54PM
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